In order to compete against the GM market, Ford needed an affordable mid-engined car, having considered Corvette a huge success. The Pantera was designed by US-born designer Tom Tjaarda and replaced the De Tomaso Mangusta. Unlike the Mangusta, the Pantera featured a new unit-steel understructure, the first instance of De Tomaso using this construction technique. It made its public debut in Modena in March 1970 and was presented at the 1970 New York Motor Show weeks later. Approximately a year later production Panteras made their way into the hands of customers and production had already been ramped up to a remarkable (by the standards of Modena-built exotica) 3 per day. An exotic car with an initial price tag starting at just over $10,000, it carried Ford’s normal warranty, fortunate as electrical and overheating problems were quite common.
The curious slat-backed seats which had attracted comment at the New York Show were replaced by more conventional body-hugging sports-car seats. Leg room was generous but the pedals were offset and headroom was insufficient for drivers above 6 ft. tall. Reflecting its makers' transatlantic ambitions, the Pantera came with an abundance of standard features which appeared exotic in Europe, such as electric windows, air-conditioning and even "doors that buzz” when open.
The first 1971 Panteras were powered by a Ford 351 CID (5.8 L) V8 which produced 330 hp. The high torque provided by the Ford engine reduced the need for excessive gear changing at low speeds, this made the car easier to drive in city conditions than many of the locally built competitor cars.
The ZF transaxle used in the Mangusta was also used for the Pantera, another Italian exotic using the ZF transaxle is the Maserati Bora, also launched in 1971 though not yet available for sale. Power-assisted four-wheel disc brakes and rack and pinion steering were all standard equipment on the Pantera. The 1971 Pantera could accelerate to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds according to Car and Driver Magazine.
In 1971 there were two different versions of Pantera awaiting shipment, European and American. The American version had larger tail lamps along with fender side lamps.
Late 1971 Ford began importing Panteras to be sold through its Lincoln Mercury dealers. The first 75 cars were simply European imports and are known for their "push-button" door handles and hand-built Carrozzeria Vignale bodies. A total of 1,007 Panteras reached the United States that first year. Unfortunately, these cars were poorly built, several Panteras broke down during testing on Ford's own test track. Early crash testing at UCLA showed that safety cage engineering was not very well understood. Rustproofing was minimal on these early cars, the quality of fit and finish was poor, with large amounts of lead being used to cover body panel flaws. Notably, Elvis Presley once fired a gun at his Pantera after it wouldn't start.
Several modifications were made for the 1972 Panteras. A new 4-bolt main Cleveland Engine, also 351 CID was used with lower compression (from 11:1 to 8.6:1, chiefly to meet US emissions standards and run on lower octane standard fuel) but with more aggressive camshaft timing in an effort to reclaim some of the power lost through the reduction in compression as well as the use of a factory exhaust headers.
The "Lusso" (luxury) Pantera L was also introduced in 1972. It featured large black bumpers for the US market as well as a 248 hp Cleveland engine. The 1974 Pantera GTS featured yet more luxury items and badging.
Ford ended their importation to the U.S. in 1975, having sold roughly 5,500 cars in the United States. De Tomaso continued to build the car, however, in ever-escalating forms of performance and luxury for more than a decade. A small number of Panteras were imported to the US by gray market importers in the 1980s, notably Panteramerica and AmeriSport. In all, about 7,200 Panteras were built.